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Strategy reversal sees Winston & Strawn shut 22-year old Geneva office to focus on London and Paris

After more than two decades operating in the Swiss city, Winston & Strawn is to shut its Geneva office at the end of September as the firm looks to service arbitration work from London and Paris.

The US firm’s 23-partner executive committee, the only body within the firm that has the power to open and close offices, undertook a review of the Geneva office and decided to close the five-lawyer outpost from 30 September. London managing partner Michael Madden and Paris managing partner Gilles Bigot are the only European members of the governance body.

Spearheaded by office managing partner Ricardo Ugarte and centred on international arbitration, the office turns a profit but the committee does not view Geneva as a growth prospect due to the centralisation of Europe-based arbitration work in London, where the firm’s global co-head of international arbitration Joseph Tirado resides. The firm’s standing in the Swiss city also took a hit when then Geneva managing partner Marc Palay left in 2010 to join Sidley Austin as global co-head of international arbitration.

The firm said in a statement to Legal Business: ‘Winston & Strawn has decided to consolidate its European international arbitration resources into its London and Paris offices. Accordingly, the partners of its Geneva office will continue to serve existing and future clients from those locations. This will allow the firm to provide more efficient and cost effective service to clients. As a result, the firm will close its Geneva office on September 30, 2015.’

Franz Stirnimann, who returned to Winston & Strawn’s Geneva office as a partner three years ago following a stint at local firm Lalive, is the firm’s other partner in Geneva. Winston & Strawn is seeking to relocate US-qualified Ugarte and Stirnimann, with the latter also able to practice in England and Wales. Ugarte already splits his time between Geneva and Chicago.

Geneva’s closure will leave the firm with just four European offices, with Paris and London processing the bulk of the region’s work and small outposts operating in Moscow and Brussels. Paris and London house 20 partners between them, with London up to nine following the addition of James Simpson through Winston & Strawn’s 19-partner raid on Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman.

Thomas Fitzgerald, managing partner at Winston & Strawn, told Legal Business: ‘We regularly look at the intersection of our clients’ needs and our practices and locations. With the increase in international arbitrations being brought in London and Paris, it made sense to reallocate our resources to better fit the current environment. We believe this approach will create greater efficiency for the firm and our clients.’

Few international law firms have ventured to Geneva, despite decades of internationalisation, and those that did enter the city seeking to capture international arbitration and World Trade Organization disputes work have often found it difficult to grow beyond a small team of lawyers. Nonetheless, Winston & Strawn’s US rival Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe became one of a handful of global firms to enter Geneva with a one-partner arbitration launch in June. This followed the closure of two of its four German offices and a reduction in the size of its European presence.